Liberalism still matters—but lord are we bad at mattering

Sitting down to write this exactly one hour after the announcement that Ed Davey had won the Liberal Democrat leadership election by an unexpected landslide, I am racked with guilt, sadness and above all, disappointment. Not only has the party missed out on achieving a historic level of representation, it had by a significant margin chosen to go down a path of continuity—as Layla Moran’s campaign put it, a ‘steady as she goes’ approach.

The ideological divide between the two candidates is not stark—people on the left (and in the press) are prone to overemphasize the Orange Book divide in the Liberal Democrats, which is understandable, but no longer a relevant way of understanding the party or its leadership contest. This is the case not just because our policy is decided upon by our members, but also for another key reason. Layla’s campaign was successful in one regard, in that she managed to fight the election on her terms, at every step forcing Ed to reaffirm his credentials as a social liberal. Unlike previous leadership elections, this was not a battle for the economic soul of the party. Instead, the lines were drawn between the more moderate, conventional, party establishment-backed Davey and the bold, young and radical campaign led by Moran. The former offered a ‘safe pair of hands’, the latter a move forwards and away from the doldrums of the late 2010’s.

There is endless debate to be had over which choice of leader would better contribute to the ultimate strategic aim of the Liberal Democrats, being to build a sustainable electoral base, preferably carved out of Tory heartlands, that is capable of surviving contact with national government. My views on this are obvious given how I voted—that a track record of saying one thing and doing another is not appealing to voters of any stripe, and that Layla would better protect our squeeze position in longer term development seats.

Leadership should not purely be about electoral pragmatism however. As desperately as I might want to move on from our most recent period in government, it was a dominant and unavoidable debate throughout the long months of the leadership election. At least amongst many in the young core of the party, the Overton window on this has shifted, maybe irreversibly. After joining the party in May 2019, through to the 12th December I was blinkered and tunnel visioned, and alongside many others defended the coalition almost to the hilt because party loyalty demanded it. Over these last few months however, Layla Moran has opened somewhat of a Pandora's box for the Lib Dem establishment. She has shown that it doesn’t have to be this way, that we can move on from our past mistakes and instead boldly advocate for radical policies in the name of a free, and yet compassionate society. Crucially, this arises less out of strategic interest than out of the fact that it is not morally tenable to defend those actions which did so much harm to the very people we are in politics for. It is therefore ironic that looking back at Layla’s campaign, I am reminded of a quote from Nick Clegg. “I believe that the way things are, is not the way things have to be.” That was Layla’s pitch for our party in a nutshell, and it will be to my undying disappointment that we did not seize it.

This leaves me personally in a rough patch. I am no longer able to blindly defend our actions in the way I did in the dark months of the 2019 election, yet I am expected (not least by myself) to continue supporting my party on its long and winding road back to political power. How do I reconcile the fact that I no longer find defending coalition remotely conscionable, whilst being firmly in a party whose leadership refuses to let the issue rest? I haven’t the foggiest. If you do, please write in.

I have often thought that irrelevance is a choice for liberalism. The policies we advocate for, the programme for government that we could and should propose: that of strong, radical social liberalism, is one that I stubbornly refuse to consign to irrelevance. And yet under Lib Dem leadership past and present that mission seems to be, well, impossible. I was relishing the chance to have our purpose and ideals be strongly articulated at a national level, to no longer be asked why I am a Liberal Democrat, to be believed and taken seriously. In short: to matter. Instead, the attack lines write themselves, as they have done for the last decade.

Despite this, hope should not be lost for the Liberal Democrats to drive the progressive agenda. In much the same way that Layla was able to fight the leadership debate on her ground, the Liberal Democrats can continue to punch above our weight and push the terms on which British politics is fought. Proportional representation, universal basic income, federalisation, GRA reform, drug legalisation, the defense of civil liberties: the list of vital progressive policies on which the Liberal Democrats still have the initiative is expansive. I don’t doubt the commitment of either candidate to this list. I am quietly confident that we can continue to be a progressive force in British politics, introducing, normalising, and then trying to deliver empowering liberal policies.

So whilst I may be left reeling, I will join the other radical liberals in dusting ourselves off and attempting to drag the Liberal Democrats, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 2020’s. No matter how tough things are, there’s always another leaflet that needs delivering, and another door that needs knocking on. And as for Ed? I really, really hope I’m proved wrong.

Patrick Gilbert

7 Sept 2020

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Liberalism still matters—but lord are we bad at mattering

Image by the Liberal Democrats